As a group of nine black-robed men and women in Washington, DC consider the fate of an Obama-era program granting rights to young undocumented immigrants, some Cincinnatians are feeling the legal battle's high stakes.
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday heard arguments over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a 2012 program that temporarily let almost 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought here as children prior to 2007 stay in the country with the right to work and go to school as long as they met some basic requirements. The administration of President Donald Trump has sought to end DACA, though three federal appeals courts have struck down those attempts thus far.
The ongoing efforts to end DACA have caused deep anxiety among immigrant communities across the country — including those in Greater Cincinnati.
Sandra Martinez is one of more than 1,000 DACA recipients living in the region. She attended a vigil supporting DACA yesterday evening at Holy Family Church in East Price Hill, a neighborhood home to a number of immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
Many of those immigrants are coming to seek better economic or educational opportunities or to escape strife, famine and corruption in their home countries.
In 2014, Guatemala had the 10th-highest murder rate in the world. Simply crossing a border doesn’t offer escape: Honduras and El Salvador, to the south, have the world’s highest and second-highest murder rates, respectively, and Belize, to the east, has the world’s seventh-highest. While parts of Mexico are safer and more stable, other areas are gripped with poverty and wars between rival drug cartels.
More than 17,000 immigrants came to Hamilton County from other countries between 2010 and 2018, Census estimates suggest — many of them from Central American countries.
Other counties in Greater Cincinnati saw less impact on their population due to immigration. Warren County gained about 3,600 immigrants, while Butler County added more than 6,000.
Ohio gained 169,000 new immigrants. Without those immigrants, the state's population would have dipped by about 12,000 people.
Nationwide, about 10 percent of counties saw their populations buoyed by immigrants, including the nine fastest-growing counties in the country.
Census data does not differentiate between documented and undocumented immigrants.
Martinez came to the U.S. with her father from Mexico when she was 6. But it took her a long time to realize that her undocumented status presented limits.
“I didn’t really know I was undocumented until I’d go home and talk to my dad about college and he’d always say, ‘It’s good to dream, but sometimes it’s harder for us,’ " she says. "I didn’t really know what he meant by that, but then things started clicking… oh, I can’t go to college because I don’t have this (document).”
She first heard about DACA in ninth grade and her father immediately helped her sign up for the program, giving her the ability to continue her education at a vocational school in Butler County.
Youth Educating Society, a group made up of young local immigrants and their allies, organized the vigil at Holy Family. The youth-led organization is part of Cincinnati nonprofit Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center.
Cincinnatian Sandra Ramirez, 20, is a college student and the current director of YES. She says the group began organizing the vigil — set to coincide with the beginning of the U.S. Supreme Court case over DACA — about a month and a half ago.
Ramirez says the group has long been pushing for DACA and deeper immigration reform — including a path to citizenship for those without documentation — and will continue to do so.
“We have been fighting by reaching out to our senators and our representatives to encourage them to support DACA, getting (the program) to accept applications again and possibly creating a pathway to citizenship for those who have DACA," she says. "We decided that it would be nice to have a vigil here in Cincinnati, because not everyone can be in Washington and because a lot of our members are DACA recipients themselves or have family members who are.”
From an immigrant family, Ramirez lost a brother to deportation in 2017.
“I know the struggle of having to say goodbye to a loved one, and how outdated our immigration system is,” she says. “It gave me a reason to be a voice in the community.”
The legal battles over DACA have stretched on since Trump first announced in 2017 that the program would be eliminated. Since that time, potentially-eligible immigrants have not been permitted to file applications to join DACA.
Trump, who ran on promises to curtail undocumented immigration into the U.S., says the program needs to end to send the message that crossing the border without authorization will not be tolerated.
Attorneys for the Trump administration argue that the Department of Homeland Security has the legal authority to end DACA, which was not passed by Congress but enacted by an Obama executive order.
However, federal appeals courts have blocked efforts to end DACA, saying DHS hasn’t provided adequate reason to do so.
Trump’s attorneys yesterday argued before the high court that DHS is within its rights to end the program, which they claim is likely unconstitutional anyway. The questions before the U.S. Supreme Court, then, are about executive power: whether the court should even be considering the case, whether DACA was a legal action by the Obama administration and whether the Trump administration via DHS has legal grounds to end the program.
The court has shifted since Obama was president, with a 5-4 conservative majority on the bench.
The decision will likely come down to Chief Justice John Roberts. He’s generally considered a conservative jurist, but ruled against the Trump administration in a recent high-profile decision over an effort to place a citizenship question on the U.S. Census.
As the court weighs DACA, local immigrant communities are holding their breath.
“It’s living with fear,” Martinez says of life without DACA. “Because in the back of your mind you have that thought — is this the last time I’m going to be able to see these people or have these experiences? It’s taking every step, every decision with extra care. It’s really hard to just live normally.”